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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Morals in medicine

Senate passes “right of conscience” bill after harrowing testimony


Mindy Swank of Chicago grew up in a conservative household – both religiously and politically – so when her pregnancy went wrong, it was a difficult decision to have an abortion.

She and her husband, Adam, were excited to have their second child, she told an Illinois Senate legislative panel at the Capitol in March, but their doctors informed them the child likely wouldn’t survive. Having the child, they were told, could hurt Mindy’s ability to have future children and possibly endanger her life. Instead of receiving the abortion, however, Mindy endured a dangerous, weeks-long miscarriage.

Mindy told her story to the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee on March 17, testifying about a bill that could have prevented her ordeal. The bill passed the full Senate on April 23 and awaits a vote in the House.

The Swanks’ hospital, one of several Catholic-run hospitals around the state, refused to terminate Mindy’s pregnancy due to the Roman Catholic Church’s religious restrictions on abortion. When the Swanks tried to have the procedure done at a secular hospital, their insurance wouldn’t cover it because the Catholic hospital hadn’t documented it as “medically necessary.”

“A few weeks later, I woke up bleeding,” Mindy told members of the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee. She said Adam took her to the local hospital, another Catholic institution, but she was denied care.

“Desperate to prove I was sick enough for them to treat me, I brought to the hospital all of the pads and clothing I had bled through,” Mindy said. “The doctors decided that I was sick enough to induce delivery. I gave birth to a baby boy who never gained consciousness and died within a few hours.”

Mindy’s ordeal prompted the Illinois Senate to pass Senate Bill 1564 on April 23 with a 34-19 vote. Sponsored by Sen. Dan Biss, D-Evanston, the bill changes the existing Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, continuing the policy of allowing a hospital to assert religious objections to certain procedures, but only if the hospital provides patients with information about their medical circumstances and treatment options. The hospital would have to suggest alternative facilities where a patient can get treatment, and a patient in immediate need would have to be treated.

The bill is backed by the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups, while the Catholic Conference of Illinois – which was formerly against the bill – has declared itself neutral after a round of negotiations saw the legislation revised. Some religious anti-abortion groups, like the Springfield-based Illinois Federation for Right to Life, still oppose the bill.

During floor debate in the Senate, Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, said the bill would require anti-abortion doctors to discuss the benefits of abortion with patients.

“How they do that, I don’t know,” McCarter said. “It does require pro-life doctors to refer or present a place to go for that patient to do something that they object to.”

He also said it would also require crisis pregnancy centers, which provide social services for pregnant women in hopes of preventing abortions, to go against their mission.

“I’ve always heard on the other side that people want less abortions and more adoptions,” McCarter said. “But this is very clear. The sponsor wants more abortions and more opportunities for those.”

McCarter’s comment was met with audible groans from other senators.

Sen. William Haine, a Democrat from Alton, rose to speak against the bill after McCarter, asking with a nervous chuckle, “Could I wait a few moments after the previous speaker?”

Haine spoke of a “tension in the bill” between religious freedom and patients’ well-being and said he could not vote for the bill. He praised the work of Catholic nuns serving as doctors and nurses in the past and present.

 “The tension in the bill is that you have an inference that these women are doing things which are not consistent with their mission, their God-given mission of treating women for their various diseases and ailments,” Haine said. “For me to support the bill, I would have to say that there’s something wrong with this mission, and we have to correct it.”

Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, noted that the Senate had discussed at length the rights of doctors with religious objections, but had said little about the rights of patients to get accurate information and timely treatment.

“For people who believe in small government, and people who believe in freedom and liberty, and people who believe the government needs to stay out of our personal affairs,” Hutchinson said, “it is very, very interesting that it’s quite okay for them to be there in the bedroom and the doctor’s office – two of the most private places you can be.”

Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, chastised her male colleagues for presuming to know what’s best for women. While the bill would also apply to male-specific procedures like vasectomies, most of the Senate debate focused on abortion.

“I want to say to any doctor out there, and certainly any doctor I’m going to: your moral beliefs? Frankly, I could give a damn,” Holmes said. “That is not my concern. I’m seeing you as a medical professional, to get the best advice of what is medically accurate. I don’t want your moral judgments; don’t need your moral judgments.  Save that for some theology discussion you’re having over dinner.”  

Contact Patrick Yeagle at

Morals in medicine

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